What, the Fugue!

Later this evening I’m giving a talk on sacred music, maybe that’s why my eye was drawn to an article in today’s Post by Simon Chin: “Emerson String Quartet at Baird Auditorium Masters the ‘Art of Fugue’”.  It’s a fine review and it got me thinking about this wonderful art form.

A fugue is a musical form in which a theme is taken up and developed in an interweaving recursive manner until it reaches final resolution.  If you’ve ever sung Row Row Row Your Boat as a round at camp, you’ll understand the concept. The wonder of the fugue is that each successive ‘round’ of the theme fits seamlessly into the one before it and after it.  J.S. Bach is the most famous master of the fugue.  Like other baroque musicians he used fugues in much of his work.  The most famous fugue of all time is his: The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (i.e. stereotypical Dracula music).  Better for understanding how a fugue works is Bach’s “Little Fugue in G Minor,” in which the theme is simpler and easily distinguished even as it repeats (All of these are available on Itunes).

I like listening to fugues.  When I’ve had a confusing or frustrating day, a fugue’s ordered elegance helps rearrange my own tumult.  Like developmental psychology, fugues present recursive stages of development. We’d all love it if life progressed simply from A to Z.  We’d never have to look back, everything would be altogether new every day.  But that’s not how we human beings roll, is it?

Instead of showing life as a linear journey, the fugue presents the same cycle of themes over and over again, developing and maturing in an ascending spiral.  We move from A to Z in one theme… then again, only this time from A’ to Z’…then again, A’’ to Z’’.  It makes sense.  History, after all, “repeats itself”… and “those who would not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  …and, of course, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”  A good fugue makes life’s spiraling pilgrimage a little less queasy, assuring us that in the end, things will work out.

Biblical history is something of a fugue.  Similar human themes are presented over and over through a successive series of covenants between God and his people.  Each new generation takes comfort that however the last attempt went, they can grow and God will not abandon them: the beat goes on and so does the theme’s maturing development.  Was this, perhaps, on Bach’s mind as he composed in the organ loft of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche?